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Gap in law means watchdog can't probe complaints after a TD has left office

SIPO wants the law changed so it has the power to investigate complaints which come to light after a politician has left office.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

THE STATE’S ETHICS watchdog said there is a gap in the law which means it does not have the power to investigate breaches by TDs who have left office.

The lacuna in the law relates to breaches in ethics law while a politician was a member of either the Seanad or Dáil, but was only highlighted after they left.

In its annual report, the Standards in Public Office (SIPO) states that during 2017, the commission examined a complaint where information came to light indicating that there may have been a contravention of the Ethics Acts by a former member of the Dáil.

However, under the current legislation the body said there is no mechanism for examining possible contraventions by a member of the Oireachtas (other than a Minister or Minister of State) in circumstances where the matter is highlighted after the member is no longer an office holder.

The report states the commission has “no authority” in relation to the actions or conduct of a sitting TD who is not an office holder, adding that the legislation also does not allow complaints to be made about former office holders to the Dáil Committee on Members’ Interests.

Breach in ethics

The commission has called for the legislation be amended to expressly deal with situations where a TD or senator may have contravened their obligations under the law and the matter only comes to light after the member has left office.

The commission, who oversees the register in which individuals, organisations, companies and PR agencies must file returns to about their lobbying activities each year, has repeated its concerns about how it is too easy for senior public servants to leave their roles and immediately move into lobbying positions.

Public servants can apply for an exemption to this “cooling off” period if their new job will not involve direct lobbying of their previous employers. Last year, five workers from government departments sought to have their ‘cooling-off’ period either reduced or waived.

Appointments to senior office

The watchdog has called for an amendment to the Ethics in Public Office Acts to require public bodies to provide timely information regarding appointments to senior office.

It said without such information, individuals employed by those bodies may find themselves in breach of the Acts by failing to provide evidence of tax compliance within statutory deadlines.

Commission Chairman Daniel O’Keeffe said currently there is no obligation set out in the legislation for public bodies to inform the commission of appointments.

“While some public bodies are more proactive than others at making such notifications, in some cases the bodies have actually refused to provide the information, citing data protection legislation,” he said.

The report also notes the lack of progress with the Public Sector Standards Bill 2015.

In April 2017, the Bill, which would replace the existing legislative framework regarding ethics, commenced committee stage, where it has since stalled.

The bill would provide for standards of integrity and a code of conduct for all public officials, along with provisions for disclosure of interests and a streamlined system for the investigation of possible breaches by public officials.

Last year, the commission closed 38 complaints in 2017, completed a preliminary inquiry, issued a report into a completed investigation, continued three investigations into other cases of possible non-compliance, and launched a further 41 investigations into non-compliance with the Act’s provisions regarding tax compliance.

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